Firefighters in prayer at the 9/11 Memorial Park on Sound Avenue in Riverhead. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead residents gathered for Sept. 11 remembrance services Monday at the town’s two memorial sites established to honor the lives lost in the 2001 terrorist attacks on America.

Twenty-two years after the attacks, the need to remember that day and what it meant weighed heavily on the minds of people speaking at the ceremonies, who noted the refrain “Never Forget” takes on new meaning for those who bore witness to the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and are charged with the responsibility of conveying their meaning to succeeding generations.

“We must never give in to political and media pressure to diminish the observance of 9/11,” Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said during a brief service at the World Trade Center Memorial on Edwards Avenue Monday morning. She called on the community to continue the solemn observation of the day of remembrance to honor the innocent victims and first responders who perished that day as well as “many who also perished in the call of duty fighting the war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“In the words of Sen. Lamar Alexander, Sept. 11 is one of our worst days, but it brought out the best in us. It unified us as a country. It showed our charitable instincts and reminded us of what we stood for and what we stand for today,” Aguiar said, drawing on a quote attributed to the former U.S. senator from Tennessee.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar speaking at the memorial service held Sept. 11, 2023 at the World Trade Center Memorial Park in Calverton. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Sound Park Heights Civic Association President Thomas O’Haire told a large gathering at the 11th annual remembrance service held at the 9/11 Memorial Park on Sound Avenue all who witnessed the events that day have an obligation to speak about them to young people.

“There’s a generation of young people that are just learning about this event in history books,” O’Haire said. “It’s incumbent on us to make sure that we don’t forget to pass along that type of information to our younger generation, to make sure this is not forgotten,” he said. It’s important, “not just out of morbid curiosity,” O’Haire said, but because “we want them to know how it was, what it was that united us as a country, solidified us as a nation and as a people.”

The civic association represents the Reeves Park community, which lost two residents in the Sept. 11 attacks, Thomas Kelly and Jonathan Ielpi, both New York City firefighters who died in the collapse of the south tower of the World Trade Center, 56 minutes after impact by United Airlines Flight 175, one of four commercial passenger airliners hijacked that day by 19 al-Qaeda terrorists.

Family members of the two fallen firefighters attended the service, surrounded by residents of Reeves Park and the wider community, members of the Riverhead and Jamesport fire departments, Boy Scout Troop 94, and elected officials.

The loss of two Reeves Park residents made the events of Sept. 11, 2001 “extremely close to home,” South Park Heights Civic Association President Thomas O’Haire said in opening remarks.

“Their loss inspired a Herculean effort on the part of the entire community to get this type of memorial park purchased, to get it dedicated and get it outfitted at what it is,” O’Haire said.

Sound Park Heights Civic Association in 2010 secured a piece of steel from the fallen tower and created a roadside memorial at the corner of Sound Avenue and Park Road, which had been named in honor of Kelly by town officials. The group spearheaded an effort to secure the 4.2-acre site on that corner, then slated for commercial development, advocating for the establishment of a memorial park there.

Emmet Kelly, father of FDNY firefighter Thomas Kelly on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks at the roadside memorial erected by residents on Park Road. File photo: Denise Civiletti

The land was purchased by Suffolk County in March 2013 and developed as a park by the Town of Riverhead, which maintains the site. The town’s buildings and grounds crew worked to get the park ready for its first memorial service Sept. 11 that year.

The memorial park is important to the community as a place for the annual service and reflection throughout the year, O’Haire said.

Ann Marie Holleran, Ielpi’s sister, spoke about focusing on kindness in a time of cruelty.

“In a world that can be cruel, choose to have courage and be kind,” she said. “In the days that followed the 9/11 attacks, nothing was more evident. On a day of cruelty, stories of ordinary citizens who chose to be courageous and show kindness began to emerge among the rubble and sorrow. These stories show the world that being courageous and kind prevailed even in the darkest hours,” she said.

Thomas Kelly’s brother Bob, a retired NYC firefighter, thanked the town’s building and grounds staff who he said “work their tails off to take care of this beautiful park.”

Steve Perry of the 9/11 Memorial Museum Survivor Tree Seedling Program, left, with Jim and Bob Kelly, brothers of Thomas Kelly, and one of two “survivor trees” donated by the program to the 9/11 Memorial Park in Riverhead. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Kelly spoke about the two “survivor trees” that were planted in the park, donated by the Survivor Tree Project. He introduced Steve Perry, who serves as liaison between John Bowne High School in Queens where the tree seedlings are grown and the 9/11 Memorial Museum Survivor Tree Seedling Program.

Perry explained the origin of the “survivor tree,” a severely damaged tree found alive in October 2001 beneath the rubble and ash at the site of the World Trade Center collapse.

“It was amazing. Everything else was annihilated,” Perry said.

The tree was an ornamental Callery pear tree, considered a “nuisance tree,” and invasive tree banned in many places, he said.

The remnants of the Ground Zero tree were brought to John Bowne High School because it has an agriculture program, where it was rehabilitated and nurtured.

“And this tree survived — not only did it survive, it came back and it thrived into a beautiful, beautiful tree — a resurrection,” Perry said.

The tree was brought back to the World Trade Center site in 2010 and was planted in the 9/11 Memorial Plaza.

Through seeds and cuttings, the original tree now has a progeny of offspring planted around the world, Perry said.

“These trees that are placed at these memorials are a reminder of the resilience of the American people — people who’ve lost loved ones, but did go on and did survive.The survivor trees are a remembrance of what happened… these trees will live on and on and on to remind those younger generations,” Perry said.

RiverheadLOCAL photos by Denise

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.